Alton knew his daddy thought him weak. No matter how hard he willed them not to, his legs trembled when he climbed the ladder to hang tobacco in the barn rafters. He lost his breakfast the time he watched his daddy cut a thin, sharp line down a hog’s throat, the thick blood splashing onto the ground and splattering up onto his pants. His brothers, Ronnie and Daniel, tormented him with dead snakes under his blanket and Daddy never bothered to stop them, though as teenagers the pair should have been beyond taunting a nine-year-old.
The time they locked him in the hot, dark shed at the edge of the yard, Alton could hear Daddy’s boots on the hard ground outside. He stopped at the locked door.
“Stop crying, boy,” he said. “You’re too old for this.”
“Let me out.”
“When you stop crying.”
Alton tried. He heard his daddy’s footsteps move away, leaving him there to bang on the door in the dark.
That same summer, just after dark, Alton’s daddy came in from locking up the chickens and said he could hear coyotes yipping around the barn. “Prolly trying to get at the rabbits,” he said.
They heard coyotes often and, when the corn and tobacco were low enough, could sometimes see them at dusk lurking around the tree line. The past few days, Daddy had seen tracks around the door of the barn and scratches where they’d tried to dig their way in through the rock-hard dirt.
“We gotta go take care of ’em,” he said.
Alton stood in the doorway of the kitchen, twisting the dish towel around his hand. The three would go hunt the coyotes and leave him here to clean up supper, he knew, and his pulse quickened at the thought of being left in the empty house alone again. Creatures’ faces always hovered just out of sight in the dark windows, their steps creaking on the porch. He would lock the door and turn on all the lights after his daddy and brothers left, but he’d have to force himself to look out the windows to watch for them so they wouldn’t come back to a locked door and know he’d been scared.
“Alton, I mean you.”
He felt a surge of relief that vanished as he noticed his brothers had not moved from the table. “Why ain’t they going, too?” He waved the dishrag at Ronnie and Daniel, who turned to their father for his reaction. Alton looked at the floor as his father walked toward him, waiting for the sting of a palm for this backtalk. But instead he just felt Daddy’s hand clasp the back of his neck and pull him toward the door. “It’s your turn, boy,” he said, grabbing the shotgun from the rack on the wall on the way out.
A dirt road cut along the edge of their property and about 300 yards from the house it turned hard left, like the peak of a triangle. At the far end, in the center of the wide field, was the barn. The road split the farm and divided the crops—corn on one side, tobacco on the other. The tobacco had been cut at the end of the summer and now hung curing in the barn. In another week or so, they would spend long days harvesting the corn, but it was fall and much cooler, so the work was hard but bearable.
Daddy had the shotgun broken open over his arm and Alton carried the lantern. The moon was bright enough that they hadn’t bothered to light it. The tall corn they walked next to was washed silver from the moonlight. Like the ghosts of plants, Alton thought. The lantern bale screeched in his hand with each step, and he shivered as he peered down the dark rows.
They stopped on top of a small rise. The barn lay in front of them.
“I don’t hear nothing,” Alton said.
“Probably heard us coming.” Daddy snapped the shotgun closed and motioned toward the squeaking lantern bale. “Hold that quiet.”
They slowed as they neared the barn. “See anything?” Daddy said.
“No.” In truth, Alton had drawn so close behind his daddy he could barely see past him, but he could feel eyes in the darkness watching them.
When they got to the barn doors, Daddy finally lit the lantern. The orange light and dark hollows of his face made Alton think of a carved pumpkin, rotting and caving in on itself. The warming lantern felt good near Alton’s hands, which had already grown stiff from the surprisingly cold night.
Alton pulled open one of the wide doors and Daddy held the lantern high. Alton scanned just past the halo of light for pale orbs blinking in the darkness, braced himself for swift gray blurs pouncing.
Daddy handed Alton the lantern, held a finger to his lips, and pushed into the barn. Alton pulled the doors closed behind them and the light from the lantern was a small raft in the flood of darkness. The moonlight punched through the holes and gaps in the warped and weathered walls, like the night sky had closed in around them, like they were walking through a field of stars.
In the middle of the barn, off to the side, were the rabbit hutches. They had fifteen to twenty at any time, sometimes far more, ready for butchering throughout the year. Good insurance against bad hunting. “You all’d eat clear through the table if I didn’t put those rabbits in front of you,” Daddy said whenever they tucked into bowls of rabbit stew or ripped into chunks of the peppered meat fried tough.
Alton hated the butchering days. It wasn’t the iron tang of the blood, or the way the mouths ticked open and closed on the severed heads, or even the way his brothers dropped the loops of intestines down the back of his shirt. All that had grown tolerable. It was the sound of the rabbits screeching that he hated, screaming like terrified children as Daddy carried them by the scruff of their necks to the chopping block. The barn filled with screams and after he heard them for days, like his body collected the sound and echoed it back.
As they got closer to the hutches they could see a dark mass in front of the far hutch. At the edge of the light a dead rabbit was splayed wide, its stomach blooming like a red flower. The blood had spread in thin rivulets, clotted with gray dust like mud-caked worms.
Daddy crouched and folded the rabbit’s leg back until he could see some semblance of the rabbit when it was live and whole. “The runt, that sickly one. They’re here all right.” Alton expected him to be angry, but an amused smile spread across his face as he looked away into the darkness.
Alton peeked into the hutch. In the back corner, the remaining rabbits huddled. “They’re scared,” he said. He touched the wooden bars of the hutch and wondered if they could remember what they had seen, if it had made them scared of the dark.
There was a low growl, then scratching at the barn door.
Alton looked to Daddy. “You hear that?”
There was another growl, louder this time, then the yip and howl of a coyote. “They’re here,” Alton whispered, but Daddy didn’t move. The gun still hung loosely at his side.
Something snuffled along the outside wall behind the hutch.
“What do we do?” Alton said.
“We kill them.” Daddy smiled at him.
There was a great howl then, long and high. A creature thumped heavily by on the other side of the barn wall.
“You sure those are coyotes?” Alton whispered.
“Course they are. You hear ‘em don’t you? Come on.” Daddy crept to the wall of the barn and peeked through a gap in the warped boards.
“What are we gonna do?” Alton said.
“We’re gonna call ‘em.” Daddy slid the barrel of the shotgun through the gap. “They come around here, then boom.” He laughed, then breathed deep. He let out a few high-pitched barks that bled into a full-throated howl.
Alton stared at him, wide-eyed. “How’d you learn that?”
“My daddy used to call ‘em in some nights. Get ‘em in close, take a couple for the pelts or just for the hell of it. Something to do. I’d teach you, if your rattling bones wouldn’t just scare ‘em off.” Daddy poked Alton’s trembling knee. He turned back to the dark hutches. “I got an idea. Go get that rabbit.”
“The dead one?”
“Course the dead one. Go on.”
Alton crept into the dark. Back at the front of the barn, there was a thunk on the door.
“What was that?” He scrambled to Daddy and pressed against the wall.
“Just get the damn rabbit, Alton. It wasn’t nothing.” He grabbed Alton’s shoulder and pushed him back into the darkness.
Alton trudged off again, this time even slower. He bent low, as if what scared him hung just above his head.
He crouched by the rabbit and poked it, looking for a clean way to pick it up. He noticed the dust surrounding it. “There’s no tracks,” he said.
“There’s no coyote tracks. Just our boots.”
“Just get on back here.”
He picked up the bloody rabbit and held it far in front of him to keep from touching the blue intestines.
Daddy let out a clipped laugh when he saw him. “It’s dead,” he whispered. “Ain’t gonna bite ya.”
Alton dropped it in the dirt and squatted over it. “Now what?”
Daddy leaned the shotgun against the wall and turned to Alton. He grabbed the boy’s hands and plunged them into the pulpy mess of the rabbit, mashing his fingers down into the guts and pushing his palms into the cooling flesh. Alton yanked away, but Daddy’s hard hands were locked around Alton’s thin wrists. He yanked again and Daddy let go and Alton sprawled back in the dirt.
Alton’s throat tightened and flooded with saliva. His heart flailed in its cage and his lungs hitched in shallow breaths. He wiped his fouled hands on his pants, leaving smears of dark, clotted blood.
“See?” Daddy said. “Just guts. Nothing to be scared of.” He studied Alton a moment and let out a long breath. “You can’t grow up so afraid, Alton. You can get scared, but then you gotta force yourself to face it. That’s the only way you can get by.”
“I ain’t scared.” Alton’s voice cracked.
“You are. And you can’t be. A scared man gets taken advantage of. A man like that gets disrespected. And that ain’t the kind of men you boys are gonna be.”
Alton stared down at his hands. The blood on them had already started to stiffen and dry as he squeezed them into fists.
“I don’t have sons like that,” Daddy said, pressing his eye again to the gap in the wall. “Maybe your mother would have done it different.” His voice was so low Alton barely heard him. He was silent then, staring out to the field until it was clear he would say no more.
“Take the rabbit,” Daddy said. He nudged the dead animal with his boot. “Slide him outside.”
Rainwater had long pooled on the foundation ledge, rotting the ends of the siding and creating a gap Alton was able to push the rabbit through. It slopped into the weeds. He tried again to wipe the offal from his hands, but only smeared blood and intestines on his clothes.
Daddy barked and yipped again, then let out an urgent howl. “They’ll come now,” he said. “You just step aside and watch.” He slipped the barrel of the shotgun through the gap.
Alton moved a few feet to the side and pressed his eye to a hole. Around the barn, the fields were still washed ghostly by the moon. The corn moved in the breeze like some swaying gray mob surrounding them, pressing closer. He watched the voids between the rows. Then a dark mass rushed in from the right, closing the distance in long strides. The shotgun exploded. Alton threw himself back from the wall, pressing his hands to his ears and crunching his eyes tight.
He felt a hand clamp his wrist and pull, and he saw Daddy speaking, but his voice was watery, swallowed by the blast still echoing in Alton’s ears.
“Get up. You’re fine,” Daddy said, his face flushed with frustration. “Did you see it?”
“It was big.” Alton shook his head to clear his buzzing skull.
“Real big. Bigger’n any coyote I’ve seen.” Daddy looked through the gap again. “The rabbit’s gone.”
Alton felt his stomach loosen and his chest tighten. He didn’t dare look out the hole again. “Can’t we just set the traps and get home?”
“We ain’t here to set traps,” Daddy said. He headed toward the doors, and Alton shuffled quickly behind. There, he handed Alton the lantern.
“The doors are stuck,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s stuck. I can’t open it.”
Daddy pushed all his weight against them. The doors bowed out but didn’t open. Through the crack they could see a tobacco stake wedged through the handles outside.
“Who did that? Who did that?” Alton’s voice rose each time.
“Calm down,” Daddy said. He pressed his face to the gap between the doors, the shotgun held tight. “This is more than coyotes.”
Alton whimpered, a shrill half-cry he couldn’t stop until Daddy clamped his fingers onto his cheeks. “Boy, you better knock that off. I said you ain’t gonna be that way.” Daddy glared at him, his nails pinching into the soft flesh of Alton’s cheeks before he finally let go.
To the right, they could still hear panting and quick yips and howls. “The other door,” Daddy said.
Alton looked off into the black cavern of the barn. Between them and the other door at the far end were the rabbits, then the tractor and the flatbed they pulled behind it. Above them, tobacco dangled like brown fingers. He held the lantern up, the feeble light pooling far too close.
Daddy pulled a tobacco stake from the pile near the door. “Here, take this,” he said, handing it to Alton. The wood felt dry and light, and the square point was dull. He felt better, braver, though, with even this rudimentary weapon.
Daddy walked off. He stopped at the edge of the light and turned to Alton. “Come on.”
They passed the hutch, Alton careful to step over the small splotch of blood from the dead rabbit. They were next to the tractor when the far door creaked open. The sliver of moonlight grew wide, and in it was the silhouette of a man. Then the door slammed closed and the man’s shape was swallowed by the dark.
“Daddy, Daddy,” Alton said. “Who was that?”
“Quiet. Come here.” They crouched down by the tractor tire. Daddy motioned for the lantern, and he took it and held it up high. Alton scanned the piles of crates and bales of hay and stacks of tobacco baskets, ready to see some dread face peering from behind it.
He looked back to Daddy and realized that all the light was doing was highlighting their exact spot. He shuffled to the edge of the light and held the stake out in front of him like a spear.
“Wait here,” Daddy said. Crouching, he moved forward with the light in one hand and the shotgun in the other. At the end of the trailer, he set the lantern on the ground, and peeked around with the shotgun aimed into the darkness.
A moment passed as the two of them waited quiet, listening for movement. Alton could hear shuffling, but over the scramble of his heart he could not pinpoint where it came from.
“I don’t see anything,” Daddy whispered. He started to move back to Alton.
“The light.” Alton pointed to the forgotten lantern.
As Daddy turned back, a figure rushed in, a burlap sack hooding its face. It grabbed Daddy, a thick arm wrapped tight around his neck as it snatched him hollering into the dark.
Alton shrieked and ran from the grunts and screams behind him. He crashed into someone’s soft stomach and went sprawling into the dirt. He scrambled away just as he felt fingers scrabbling at his ankle. He swung the tobacco stake behind him and felt it connect and heard a cry of pain.
He ran hard toward the light from the now open door. He banged through it into the gray light, then turned and ran deep into to the cornfield. He slid into the dirt by a row of corn and lay flat on the ground with his hands over his head, shaking and trying to hold back the sound of his crying. He scooted away from the corn, sure his trembling would vibrate up through it and give him away. The tobacco stake lay on the ground next to him.
Daddy was dead, he was sure, dragged off and murdered by whoever or whatever had crept into the barn. His mind groped for an escape—sprinting through the field home, crawling slowly on his belly, spending an interminable, cold night hiding until dawn—but every plan ended with him being caught and devoured by the hooded man, dragged off to die the same as Daddy.
Then he heard laughter.
“Alton,” he heard. “Come on out.”
It was Daddy.
“It was just us!” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s just us.”
Then it was Ronnie’s voice, thick with laughter. “Come on, Alton. We were just fooling with you.”
He could hear Daniel, too. The three voices murmured across the field, broken by laughter.
“Aw, hell. Where’d he run off to? Alton!”
“He’s prolly back to the house under his bed,” Daniel said. “Ran right on the tops a that corn all the way home.”
The three of them broke up again laughing. Alton could imagine Daddy wiping his eyes, the way they watered whenever he had a good, hard laugh.
“Alton!” Daddy’s amusement had taken a sharp edge now. “Come on out boy! There’s nothing to be afraid of!”
They were silent, listening for him.
“Little shit knocked the wind out of me,” Ronnie said. “Whacked me with something.”
“Gave him a tobacco stake,” Daddy said.
“Jesus,” Daniel said. “Good thing you didn’t give him the shotgun.”
“You did good, Alton! Now come on!”
Alton could hear them plotting what to do next in low voices.
“Come on out now, boy! We ain’t foolin’ no more!” Daddy yelled. But still, Alton lay in the dirt, shaking now from shame as much as fear. There were no coyotes, just the three of them, his father and brothers. They’d even killed that rabbit, the runt, just to scare him.
“He must be back at the house,” Daniel said.
“We’re going back!” Daddy yelled. “Last chance to come on, otherwise you’re on your own.”
Alton still did not stand. He would not go to them. Maybe he would sneak into the house later after they’d fallen asleep. Then he wouldn’t have to see them. He rubbed his arms to warm them, the cool ground pulling the warmth from his body, and knew that he wouldn’t be able to wait that long.
He heard Daddy’s voice lower. “Get rid of that rabbit and let’s go. He’ll follow.”
The barn door slammed shut, then Daniel grunted as he flung the dead rabbit into the field. The body slapped through the corn and thudded somewhere behind Alton. He shrunk back further as their boots crunched along on the road and he lay listening as their voices and laughter faded. It was a long time before he stood and walked out of the field. Far ahead of him, Ronnie had the lantern now and its light swung between them. They rounded the bend toward the house and Alton watched the light shine above the corn. Then it stopped and went out.
They waited, just around the bend, ready to jump out and scare him. Alton was sure of it. But he wouldn’t let them scare him again. He looked at the cornfield, tried to judge what line would lead him back to the house. Then he marched in.
He wasn’t supposed to walk through the corn. Daddy had threatened them many times, but Alton didn’t care anymore. He would walk out of the dark field, head high and unafraid. Show them something, at least. Once in a while, as he walked, he swung the tobacco stake like a sword, cleaving an ear of corn or two, snapping a few stalks straight through.
Had to be halfway by now, he thought, craning to see above the too tall corn. He planted the stake in the ground and jumped, but still couldn’t see. He tried again. His breath clouded the air around him.
He was leaning against the stake, bracing for another jump, when the corn rustled behind him. He turned, but there were just stalks swaying in the breeze. He turned back to the house again, ready to jump, when he heard the first howl.
He wheeled around, the stake in front of him. It was just Daddy, he thought. Trying to scare him again. He let the stake slide down to the ground.
But Daddy wasn’t behind him, he was hiding on the road around the bend, or already given up waiting and gone back to the house. Alton yanked up the stake and looked into the dark. He took a step back and the corn leaves scraped his neck.
The gaps between the rows were black and deep. Again he heard the high howl of a coyote. Closer? Where the rows disappeared into black points, shapes twisted in the dark.
A coyote barked.
Alton ran and crashed through the corn, the leaves tearing at his skin. He could hear it, he was sure, the coyote snaking its way through the field after him, the corn rustling and the paws kicking up the soft dirt behind him. He could smell its dank fur and rancid breath full of rotting meat.
His legs pumped harder. The tilled earth, damp from the summer’s frequent afternoon storms, was soft under his feet. A rut swallowed his foot and sent him sprawling through the corn. He jumped up flailing the tobacco stake, the stalks snapping around him with each swing.
Alton tried to yell, to roar as loud as he could, but his throat was dry and it came out strangled and weak and he didn’t know which way to face. It could be anywhere. He swung the stake again and again until the corn stalks lay broken in a broad swath around him. His tongue felt thick and pain jabbed his side with each quick breath.
He straightened, tried to make himself look bigger as he sucked in air and kept watch on the darkness where he’d heard the howls.
“Get out of here! Go!” His voice was weak. He swung the stake toward the darkness between the rows, smacking the ground, the wood stinging down to the bones of his palm. He shook his hand, trying to knock loose the pain. He felt the rabbit blood then, still sticky on his fingers, the gore still coating his hands and clothes and its scent wafting through the corn.
Somewhere in the dark he heard a sharp bark, then a long, high howl. The night seemed to quiet, but then the lone coyote was echoed by a chorus of howls. Alton knew how they would respond—their ears perked and their sharp snouts sniffing the air before they burst forward to answer the call. They would flank him, close in on all sides, each animal a tooth in a jaw ready to snap shut.
He turned, expecting to see one creeping up behind him. He pivoted and swung again, this time to the right. He turned and swung, turned and swung until his arms burned.
His legs weakened and he had to plant the stake to steady himself when he realized what he’d done. He’d spun and swung and fought and now had no idea which way to find home.
His breath came in ragged hitches as he circled, looking for the coyotes in the darkness, looking for home through the cornfield. Was the house in front or behind? He could see the moon, but couldn’t remember if that was of any use to navigate.
He swung the stake again, snapping stalks of corn and stepping toward the darkness. If he pretended he wasn’t scared, if he just acted strong enough, the answer would come.
A chorus of howls rose behind him, the sound echoing from everywhere. He imagined the coyotes arced like a scythe across the field, rushing toward him.
He saw a long trail of broken and bent cornstalks unspooled in front of him. An erratic path ripped through the corn, the sharp dark divots of his footprints in the soft dirt, the trail ending here in the broken circle around him. Those tracks, that path, that was where he came from. The house was behind him.
Alton spun, eyes closed as he swung the stake wide. His palms were slicked by sweat and the stake flew off into the darkness. He turned and ran, the stalks snapping around him like gnashing teeth.
He sprinted and waited for the bite at his heel that would pull him down, the writhing, fur-covered mass that would bury him. He imagined his father standing over his dead, mangled body, shaking his head. Alton ran and prayed not to die until his lungs and muscles burned, until suddenly the corn was gone, vanishing from either side of him.
The loose field turned to solid dirt and grass carpeted the soft slope of the backyard. The windows of the house glowed like yellow eyes, watching him as he ran to the shed and jumped inside, slamming the door behind him.
He panted, his back pressed against the door, the rough wood scraping through his shirt with each breath. Inside the shed was quiet but for the filling of his lungs and his pulse flooding his ears.
The sound of coyotes crashing into the door never came. He waited, listening for them snuffling or pacing around the perimeter of the shed, but he heard nothing.
Alton cracked the door until he could see the cornfield. It had grown still, the only evidence of anything wrong the skewed stalks at the edge of the yard. He closed the door and leaned his head against the wood. He wiped his eyes. Nothing was out there.
“Alton!” he heard. “Alton!” He peeked from his hiding spot and saw Daddy, Ronnie and Daniel on the dark porch. Far off in the field, a coyote called. “Goddamn it,” Daddy said. “Let’s go.”
Their lanterns creaked as they stomped off across the yard. The far off shouts grew clearer.
Alton crept out into the dark. Along the road to the barn, three lanterns broke through the night. He watched the lights and listened to Daddy and his brothers shout his name as they marched toward the barn, the three spread along the road like a short string of lights.
One lantern disappeared around the bend. Then another dropped from view, until a final circle of light was all he could see.
Alton walked up to the house. His legs felt shaky and unfamiliar like they belonged to someone else. He sat on the porch, resting in the small square of light that pooled under the kitchen window. The sweat that covered his body had cooled him quickly in the night air and he shivered.
Across the field, down the road, the distant shouts continued.
Past the barn, a lone coyote howled. The coyote sounded again, and this time, it was answered by a choir, the high, sharp barks crashing into and over each other. The lanterns stopped and clustered together, and Alton could see the three of them staring off across the field. They started down the road again, faster now, the lights bouncing in jagged arcs. Daddy’s voice grew louder, even though the lights grew more distant. There was a strange urgency to his voice Alton hadn’t heard before, but he recognized the fear fraying the edges and smiled. In a few moments, the three would reach the bend, the only spot where they could see both the barn and the house. The coyotes’ cries echoed across the field.
As his daddy and brothers reached the bend in the road, Alton moved out of the light. They paused to look back at the house, then disappeared around the corn.
Letting the door hang open, Alton went inside. He imagined his daddy and his brothers and their lanterns wheeling around the barn, their panicked darts into the corn as they searched for his tracks, their shouts and the coyotes’ howls growing louder. He turned out the light and sat at the kitchen table, knowing full well there wasn’t anything out there to be afraid of.
© Brandon Dudley
[This piece, the 2017 Maine Literary Award for best short fiction winner, was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Brandon’s interview]